REVIEW – Food Fraud in the WTO Report on Trade and Food Standards

As Codex Alimentarius is getting close to publishing food fraud definitions and focusing on reducing vulnerabilities, the World Trade Organization (WTO) will become more of a priority. Food fraud can harm public health, but an incident can also massively disrupt trade, including for impoverished nations.

Reference: WTO, World Trade Association, Trade and Food Standards, co-authored with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2017, URL:

This is a review of the food fraud topics covered in the WTO/ FAO report on “Trade and Food Standards,” published in 2017. A keyword search on the website in February 2023 found nine mentions of the “food fraud” term. One was the Trade and Food Standards report that is reviewed here, five were related to the WTO webinar (where I presented, see our other blog post), and three were presentation slides with a total of four mentions of “food fraud.”

The World Trade Association

The global coordination of food is led by organizations such as the United Nations (Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Trade Organization (WTO), to name a few. The Codex Alimentarius (CODEX) world food code is a key focal point.

Quotes from the report are included here and below.

“The WTO [World Trade Organization] is the sole global organization mandated to deal with the rules of trade between nations. WTO members come together to negotiate these rules, which take the form of trade agreements, adopted by consensus. The WTO also oversees the application of these rules and monitors the trade policies of its members.”

“The overarching purpose of the WTO system is to help trade flow as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible, which is important for economic development and well-being.”

“The WTO provides a set of rules for multilateral trade and is a forum to resolve disputes and negotiate new rules. Since standards are essential for smooth trade, the WTO Agreements strongly encourage governments to harmonize their requirements on the basis of international standards. In the area of food safety and quality, the WTO’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures and WTO’s Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) rely on Codex standards by setting these out as the benchmark for harmonization.”

WTO and Food Standards – CODEX is the Vehicle: The WTO activities build upon already-adopted international standards. In many cases, such as the “Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights” (TRIPS Agreement), there is a need for further consensus on more complicated trade issues. The foundation for the food standards is Codex Alimentarius (CODEX).

“Trade in food is difficult to imagine without standards. Food standards give confidence to consumers in the safety, quality and authenticity of what they eat.”

“Food standards and trade go hand in hand in ensuring safe, nutritious and sufficient food for a growing world population. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acknowledge the role that trade can play in promoting sustainable development. The key applications are in: SDG 2 on hunger, food security, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture; SDG 3 on healthy lives and wellbeing; SDG 8 on economic growth, employment and work; and SDG 17 on strengthening global partnerships for sustainable development.”

“Through the joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission governments establish science-based food standards. The work of Codex provides governments with a valuable resource to achieve public health objectives such as food safety and nutrition, while providing a basis for trade to take place.”

WTO and Harmonized Terminology: A crucial role of WTO is to encourage the development of international standards and harmonization, such as the starting points of terms, definitions, and common risk assessment theories and practices.

“International standards and harmonization help to: facilitate international trade since products meeting the same standards may be accepted more widely and producers do not need to know in advance the final markets for their products, resulting in fewer unnecessary trade restrictions.”

WTO, FAO, and WHO Focus on Trade: The exchange of goods and services is a key focus for CODEX, and the related organizations because, with a secure supply chain, there is more incentive for more people to make more and safer food products. The combined result is better, lower-cost food and the ability to raise people from subsistence farming to earn a better living by creating and selling value-added products.

“The use of international food standards worldwide helps reduce trade costs by making trade more transparent and efficient, allowing food to move more smoothly between markets. Trade is inextricably linked to food security, nutrition and food safety. Trade affects a wide number of economic and social variables, including market structures, the productivity and composition of agricultural output, the variety, quality and safety of food products, and the composition of diets.”

WTO and Food Fraud: Trade and Food Standards Report (2017): In this 2017 WTO report, food fraud is classified in the report under “new types of challenges.”

There is an awareness that the rapid advance in the precision and dissemination of testing technology could lead to more fraud being detected or, in other cases, countries with less testing capacity being at an export trade disadvantage. “Increased trade, especially in value-added commodities together with fluctuations in production creates opportunities for food fraud, another longstanding challenge for regulators.”

The 2017 report focuses on whole genome sequencing (WGS), and food fraud prevention focuses on the detection. There is a frequent emphasis, such as “Key benefits of electronic SPS certificates include enhanced authenticity and integrity and the reduction of opportunities for fraud, which result in improved food security and safety.”

It is significant that food fraud was a key topic and that there was a separate section introducing the concept. Now there is a clear and concise WTO definition of the term, and by including this mention, food fraud is defined as a critical WTO topic.

Section: Food Fraud

“Food fraud is the deliberate substitution, addition, adulteration or misrepresentation of food or food ingredients for economic gain. Food fraud can be a threat to food safety or negatively impact the nutrition status of already vulnerable populations. At the core is a violation of the authenticity of food and the assumption that food labels convey truthful and accurate information.

When food fraud occurs, all downstream stakeholders in the supply chain immediately lose all trust in the authenticity of the food and trade can be frozen almost instantly. To rebuild trust and, in turn, resume trade, the authenticity of products in the market must be verified and demonstrated, which can be a long and expensive process. Food fraud always causes immense financial losses, as most consumers simply switch immediately to other products or categories and often never return.

Strong standards for authenticity that are regularly enforced throughout the entire value chain help prevent the occurrence of such events. In addition, a number of tools to assess the vulnerability of supply chains and organizations to food fraud have been developed by various organizations. However, discussions at the international level on the suitability of these tools are still under way, and it remains to be fully determined which mechanisms to prevent fraud and mitigate its impact will be most effective for global trade and value chains.”

    Takeaway Points

    • Food fraud continues to be recognized as a critical international concept. There is ongoing support for harmonizing terms and sharing best practices.
    • Food fraud seems to be past the “hype cycle” peak of a lot of talks, (e.g., “what is the problem”)and now  shifting to the implementation of prevention programs (e.g., “how to deal with it”).
    • Now is a critical time to support the global activities to establish the foundation and then move to capacity- and capability-building – that is, to continue to move towards the same goal and then to increase the number and expertise of people who are working on the topic.
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